It also makes it difficult to read published works because I can't always turn this off.
It also means that the momentum of a story is easy to throw off, because I'm reading and typing at the same time. Good stories with strong momentum lead to shorter critiques on my part, because I'm actually trapped in reading the thing.
I've read three stories is present tense this week. Did I miss the memo? Is this the new thing?
Anyway, one of these stories has an unreliable narrator, and it seems to me that the writing is lazy, more than the the narrator being unreliable. Like the good bits came to the writer and were stitched together to make a straight line, but the good bits don't lead into one another, but ping pong across a divide. The challenge this story faces is establishing an unreliable narrator and making it clear that the narrator is unreliable.
And, to be pedantic, what does an unreliable narrator mean? I have characters who are not reliable, but due to the stress of the story they may not see things as they are, and as I'm usually writing in first person, I'm deliberately misleading the reader. Is this truly an unreliable narrator, if it only happens at peak times, or is this simply a mistaken narrator? What does it take to establish an unreliable character? I've posed the question on Twitter.
I'm not sure how to do it. I suppose if the character is doing something already known to impair judgement, that establishes the unreliability, but right now I can't think of any other way.
The first-person point of view is a particular favorite of mine, so I should study it with a bit more scrutiny, I suppose.
The story in question opens with two paragraphs describing a relative of the narrator and a special feature of this relatives existence. There is
no action, just description of this unusual quality. The third paragraph opens with the sentence "I've lived with her since her family died." The usage of the Past Perfect tense implies that this condition is still going on, so the narrator still lives with this relative, hinting that nothing has changed in the story. It sets the narrator at a point in time, and from there the story can continue from that point (making the opening section a background infodump) or it can go back in time and tell a story about how this situation occurred, but this story does neither. All it has done is set up the table to tell another story, which now feels like a flashback.
If the bulk of a story is a flashback, I say the basic condition of living with this relative has to change in some way (as the flashback story should change the narrator or the relative) to make the setup and story meaningful. That's what didn't happen in this story.
What happened was two things that seem unrelated (relative moving in with narrator, then relative getting a job where the narrator works) only seem to be happy coincidences that allowed an easy solution to the one bit of action that happens in the end. Everything leading up to the action took 1,785 words, and the action took 1,200 words, and there is a 122-word denouement. More words are given to setting up the solution to the conflict before the conflict even starts. This is the risk of using the flashback, I think, because the, well, I need to draw a map, but I'm too lazy so imagine a simple alphabetical timeline: A, B, and C.
These are three points in time, in order. The narrative structure, however, starts at C (with that Present Perfect phrase) and rolls back to A, then starts telling the story at B, and ends. The narrative never returns to C.
It's possible that this narrative reaches point C again, and even hints at a change in condition at point C, but that change isn't set up in the descriptive opening, so the narrative momentum is lost.
Now, if I could only think about my own stories with this kind of detail.
Looking back, I'm really glad we got it so wrong. There's only one name on this list in the actual movies.
- Faramir: Alec Baldwin, Emilio Esteves, Michael Biehn
- Boromir: Keifer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Jonathan Frakes, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson
- Aragorn: Rutger Hauer, Tommy Lee Jones, Liam Neeson, Adrian Paul, Daniel Day Lewis, Christopher Lambert
- Butterbur: Leo McKern
- Eowyn: Robin Wright
- Eomer: THe blonde from Abba, Michael Biehn
- Theoden: Sean Connery
- Imrahil: Val Kilmer
- Saruman: Gene Hackman, Ian Holm, Anthony Hopkins, Donald Sutherland
- Gandalf: Christopher Lloyd, Sean Connery, Patrick McGooan, Charleton Heston, Patrick Stewart, Jack Nicholson, Cosmo Kramer, Robert Downey Jr., Derek Jacobi
- Tom Bombadil: Robin Williams, Danny Devito, Dom DeLuise, Shaq, Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, Gene Wilder, Colm Meaney, Garrison Keillor, Roger Daltrey
- Goldberry: Jennifer Lien, Penelope Ann Miler, Robin Wright
- Mouth of Sauron: David Warner
- Galadriel: Kim ?, Pamela ?, Michelle Pheifer, Kathleen Turner, Nicole Kidman, Marina Sirtis, Moira Kelley, Vanessa Redgrave
- Gildor Inglorion: Getty Lee
- Cirdan: Sir Alec Guinness
- Arwen: Madeliene Stowe
- Glorfindel: Jeff Goldblum
- Legolas: Brent Spiner, Alexander Siddig, Cary Elwes, Chris O'Donnel
- Elrond: Leonard Nimoy
- Samwise: Tom Hanks
- Pippin: Billy Crystal
- Gollum: Rowan Atkinson, Pauly Shore, Pee Wee Herman, Nabil Shaban, John Hurt, Joel Gray, Jim Carrey
This is why crowdsourcing is not always a good idea, people
Aside from writing some very clever (and at least one incredibly snarky) essays, I'm keeping the video archive, because these are very helpful things to have.
Here's one idea, that I should expand on:
In The Left Hand of Darkness, the inhabitants of Gethen spend most of their lives in "sommer," which sounds like a completely made-up word, but humans derived from gender are "somatic," that is, they move, they work, they think. "Sommer" could easily derive from "somatic" and still sound alien. The takeaway is we, as writers, can delve into the dictionary to find good words, and derive new words from a few linguistic mutations to come up with something that "sounds right."
Shelley's Frankenstein begins with letters of a sea captain, telling his sister what this strange doctor told him, and later what the creature said to him.
Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau begins with a young man saying "this is the story my uncle told me" (or wrote down, I don't remember at the moment).
Hawthorne's The Birthmark begins with a narrator telling us about this story, as does Rappachini's Daughter.
It is an interesting device, and not one that I run into very often these days. I suspect this is because it's simply no longer necessary. Genre-minded audiences open a book and expect something strange or different, and don't need some narrator letting them know that this story may seem unbelievable but it's true.
Maybe they needed that boost of "this fictional story is important to one fictional character, and so it should be important to you, the reader." I don't know. It may have given the main work verisimilitude that we don't need nowadays.
Anyway, just a quick thought. If i'm wrong, tell me in the comments.
Some context: I'm in this online course and we're reading a book a week and writing essays and bitching about how hard it is to write a 300-word essay and bitching about the people bitching about not getting good reviews or the essays they have to review are atrocious. And we complain about it.
This week we are covering Hawthorne and Poe, reading a selection of short stories. These writers are considered "Dark Romanticists"
To understand Dark Romanticism, I delved--breifly--into Romanticism. I'm sure I learned some of this as an art student twenty years ago, but I've forgotten it. The Wikipedia summary states that Romanticism is a reaction against the industrialism and Enlightenment period. I've considered these to be positive points of growth in society. So I wonder if the same thing is happening today with the reaction against science and fact-based reality.
Romanticism is about accepting the emotion as the most authentic experience, and it promoted individualism and liberalism (in the sense that we need tools (like education and guns) to keep us free -- not the left-wing political movement). This seems to be the core message of the noise machine. Facts don't matter. How you feel matters. Sharing isn't good, it's an assault on my personal freedom.
The Romanticists, however, produced great works of art. If the Noise Machine is in any way tied to Romanticism, it certainly hasn't produced great art.
So maybe there's no connection but this tenuous grasp I'm trying to sort out in my head.
I am writing this guide for my sake as much as anyone else's. There are unique challenges to taking an online course. I hope to address some of these myself, with my own, limited experience in online classes, but backed up by my years of being a private tutor and having a Master's Degree in Education.
( This is almost 2K words long, so I've cut it to save your friends feedCollapse )
Online courses can be tough. They're meant to be. Expectations are high.
As this is the longest post I think I've ever written on this blog, I'll stop here. I do plan on posting my first essay and the reactions and my reactions to the reactions at a later date.
Our class is doing the first rounds of peer reviews. I'll get the results of what my peers thought of mine tomorrow. For the last two days I've been reading about plagiarism in the course, which seems absolutely silly, and the notion that some students are getting an "unfair" advantage because of how they've chosen to complete the assignment.
The first is silly. It's a free online course. The effort needed to find something to copy is probably about the same as the effort needed to write 300 words of complete balderdash. If you don't care about learning, just read along or drop out or don't submit anything. What do you sacrifice? A Certificate of Completion. I plan on earning one, but I don't plan on including it in my resume or any submission letter. It's nice to know I can think like this, and focus thoughts, and I suspect I will grow as a writer for taking the course, and of course I'll have exposure to new thoughts and ideas that will further inform the work I do later.
This attitude may seem odd. My church congregation, for example, has many academics and professors and teachers and when we read the Ten Commandments the first one has a footnote: Thou shalt not plagiarize. But in a free course? So what. It makes my time of giving a peer review a little less value to them, but still helps me as a writer and reader in the review itself.
The cries of "unfair" are even harder to understand. Some essays were written solely on one of Grimm's tales. This is fine and the professor's videos clearly explained this is acceptable. But some people think it's unfair to those "who read the whole book" to give an equal grade to someone who read "only one or two stories." The person who made this complaint also claimed (or dropped a strong hint) that they are a teacher working with students. Others have rightly pointed out that there's no way she could know the essayist only read one of the tales, just off the fact that the essayist focused on one tale.
I actually got one of these, and it helped me understand a story that the first time I read it, I thought, what the hell did I just spend my time on? (The story in question was The Cat and Mouse in Partnership.) Reading the essay did in fact enrich my understanding by giving me an allegory to work with. I'm not sure I agree with the allegory, and the essayist didn't say if they agreed with the moral judgement inherent in the allegory, but it helped frame the story.
The whole notion of fairness seems odd, too, based solely on the perceived effort of the student. I was pretty good at math. I picked up on things and could run with it. Because I put in less effort, I deserved a lesser grade even though I had equal mastery of the subject? That seems backwards to me. Evaluation should be based on mastery, not effort.
This is why the "write a million words before you get good" is kind of a cop out. I think writers could improve in a million words, only because practice helps, but without focused reactions to hone the work, critical readings of other's works, then the chances of improving diminish. Perfect practice makes perfect, really, but that sounds more elitist than it really is.
What I'm really learning in this course is to not participate in discussion forums as much.
I'm trying to remember why I'm grading, and that's to help other students get better. I tend to play sniper from my ivory tower. For me, this is an exercise in being avuncular more than anything else.
Luckily, the peer review section allows me to save drafts of my comments on all 5 before I submit any of them, so I have a chance to review my work, go into the forums, see how other people are feeling about this, and then I can go back and re-think some of the things I would say that may be less than productive.
It is important to offer helpful critiques and avoid statements like "you have to write it this way" or "you broke rule #4 of writing werewolf stories." Tact is vital to the message being heard. Critters also has a rule about critiques being long enough to be "worth" something. I've encountered one persons interesting way of padding, that addresses the tact situation.
>>> I think in this sentence the word "of" is a typo. I think you meant to use the word "off" instead.
>>> I think this sentence could do with a little rewriting. I suggest rather writing it something like this:
There is nothing wrong with these phrases, but after reading them 20 times in one critique, I have to wonder what is going on in the critiquer's mind: Are they trying to be tactful all the way through, or are they padding?
Then I got this one:
>>> I have no idea what's going on with this contest. It's an arena but it's never described. (Check out XXX as an example of what you're doing.)
Well, that's clear. The commenter doesn't understand how some bit of technology in the story works, then points me to an example of that technology. I followed up on that and what is being pointed out is in reference to a completely different aspect of the story.
But at this point I find myself wanting to write notes of acknowledgements back saying "well, if you had paid attention to this characters very first line of dialogue, you would have known what she wanted" but I don't do that.
I'm a "young writer" still in the pre-launch stages of my career. I accept that. I have to remind myself that it's probably true also for a lot of the people I encounter on Critters.